Get to know Minnesota Department of Transportation’s new artist-in-residence Sarah Petersen

“Fixers: A Trauma Revival” at Elephant Art Space, Los Angeles, Summer 2019, courtesy of Astri Swendsrud (left image) and Sarah Petersen (right image)

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) announced that Sarah Petersen will serve as as the Sustainability and Public Health fellow, an artist-in-residence position at the agency, in a program created by Smart Growth America. Sarah will be taking a fresh look at MnDOT’s goals to promote economic vitality, improve safety, support multimodal transportation systems, and create healthier communities.

The second statewide agency to host an artist-in-residence following the launch of Washington State DOT’s similar program, MnDOT most recently hosted Marcus Young 楊墨, whose report has recently been published. Ready to get started, Sarah took a few minutes to answer some questions about the upcoming fellowship and the continuation of the artist-in-residence program at MnDOT: 

What was it about the MnDOT Sustainability and Public Health Fellowship that inspired you to apply? Now that you’ve been selected, what excites you most about the Fellowship?

Any opportunity based in sustainability, equity, and creative interventions will get my immediate attention! I’ve been passionate about connecting both arts and education to social and environmental advocacy for years, whether in my own art practice, as an arts educator and producer, or as a sustainability project manager in higher education institutions and beyond. MnDOT’s intention to lower CO2 emissions through municipal investments, structural and systemic changes, and shifts in constituent behavior really stood out to me, as did the opportunity to learn from the expertise of MnDOT, SGA, and transportation advocacy communities more broadly. I’m most excited to help transform some of MnDOT’s processes and implementation strategies, and also to connect with MnDOT constituencies who haven’t been centered in the past. Using creative approaches to systems thinking, participatory decision making, and the varied skillsets of an artist, educator, producer, and organizer, I really look forward to incentivizing the kinds of behavioral shifts that we all need to be making – from the individual to the bureaucratic level – in order to create a world we can actually thrive in together.

While you’ll have a lot of time to formulate project ideas once the Fellowship starts, what are your initial thoughts on how you’ll approach the Fellowship?

With so much to learn, myself, about MnDOT systems and all who build and rely on them, I’m particularly interested in helping break down knowledge and communication barriers between different members of these systems. Analyzing and integrating understandings across silos and divides, leveling power dynamics, increasing transparency, and helping people to build trusting, ongoing relationships to strategize together and support transformational change are some of my main goals in this fellowship.

I look forward to digging into the many ways public health and sustainability research is already being implemented by MnDOT, and to learning what unknowns still need further investigation from the standpoint of each MnDOT team. It’s these unknowns and implementation bottlenecks that creative intervention might best address. I hope to help analyze structures and systems, draw out patterns that are working and that aren’t, and look for both low-hanging fruit and intractable problems that are nonetheless essential to solve.

Further, I’ll be learning from the experience and projects of my predecessor in this work, the inaugural AIR Fellow, Marcus Young 楊墨, who’s already worked to transform MnDOT culture in reparative ways through deep listening and through the creation of The Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room at MnDOT headquarters, among other projects. I’m excited to build on this ground work, continuing to develop methodologies for harvesting the deep work of meaningful conversation so that progress that has already been made continues. I’m also excited to see how the “wild dreams” MnDOT folks voiced in conversation with Marcus in the last few years are already being integrated into their work. 

Finally, I will be thrilled to learn from and collaborate with other artists-in-residence at municipal and state levels nationally, whether in Washington State or cities throughout the country as they address our shared sustainability and public health challenges. 

Image of a rending of a newly designed conference room with several plants, armchairs, and purple map of indigenous land on the left wall.
The Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room at MnDOT headquarters, image courtesy of Marcus Young 楊墨

Tell us about one of your recent projects that you feel is relevant to the Fellowship.

In my art practice, which is multidisciplinary but frequently based in installation and performance, I like to provide opportunities for people to practice acknowledging their own and others’ realities in new ways. Before the pandemic, I installed a highly tactile, month-long experiential gallery show that grew out of questions about how people might heal together in public. Suggestions painted on the walls supported visitors settling into and exploring the space and their own embodied experiences within it, moving and vocalizing in unusual ways, and hand-built bleachers provided places to rest, read, contemplate, and gather for conversation. In the center of the room hung a mass of multicolored cotton ropes that people could manipulate in any way, so the work in the space altered daily, with nearly every visitor having a visible effect on the show. Recorded noise improvisations by the group Marisol augmented the sonic experience with sounds ranging from discordant to harmonious.

The combination of open-ended, soothing and challenging elements was meant to make people feel free to take playful risks. I saw my role as initiating and facilitating an aesthetic social experiment through material interventions, signage, furnishings, sounds, and behavioral prompts that might produce healing. This was space to make new choices, to try out new behaviors in a supportive yet strange environment where it was safe to get a little weird. I believe environments can support and focus our capacity to transform ourselves, and to make transformative choices, together. This playful, strange, unsettling, noisy, and calming space was intended to give people expanded options for acting, interacting, strategizing and inventing new and better options, alone and together. I expect this desire to create space for experimentation with others and to facilitate collaborative invention will show up in my approaches as the MnDOT Sustainability and Public Health Fellow in a variety of ways. Expect a similar approach to navigating necessity and novelty, together, toward a greater good.

“Fixers: A Trauma Revival” at Elephant Art Space, Los Angeles, Summer 2019, courtesy of Sarah Petersen

In our Arts, Culture, and Transportation Field Scan, we profiled seven roles that artists play in solving transportation challenges, from generating creative solutions to healing wounds and divisions. How would you describe your approach as an artist working on transportation projects and how might your work resonate with or expand beyond those seven roles?

In all my work, whether in art, education or sustainability, I like to stand in problems with others, investigating complex systems together to see where we can intervene to make new choices and changes. I believe everyone has the capacity to be a creative thinker, with their own realms of expertise and the capacity to produce novel and necessary solutions to the problems they encounter, and I really enjoy learning and co-creating with others for this reason: when people are validated for naming problems and have the agency to create solutions, unexpected and profoundly good outcomes can result. Often, a bridge must be built between those accustomed to producing what are deemed “creative” solutions and those whose work lives reinforce the “practical.” But generally, good solutions are both. For all these reasons, I feel a strong tug toward the first of these roles, “Generating creative solutions for entrenched transportation projects.” 

But I simultaneously feel pulled to “Engaging multiple stakeholders for an inclusive process” and “Healing wounds and divisions,” because equitable sustainability and public health advancements can only truly happen when paired with each of these approaches. I’m excited to see where we can make progress on “entrenchment” – whether it appears as 20th century transportation ideas that aren’t going to work for much longer, or as the structural social inequities many of those same transportation solutions made much worse (and continue to exacerbate). Creative, inclusive, equitable, community-engaged problem-solving helps us guard against asking misguided and irrelevant questions, and it helps insure necessary access and empowerment to rectify historical and contemporary inequities. We need to listen to the details about why the “ideal” is not already the reality in order to steer ourselves toward those goals, and we need to listen to people who haven’t historically been heard in order for our analysis to be anywhere near accurate. Expanding the circle of whom and what MnDOT is listening to as it steers its decision making and implementation is critically important. Helping people hear each other’s valid and competing concerns is also critical at this point in our collective history, while we aim for common ground on which to build momentum toward solutions for our increasingly urgent environmental challenges. 

Additionally, I want to address folks hesitant to spend money on “art” when other necessities need funding. One hears this perspective regularly in arts advocacy work, especially as it relates to the public good and public coffers. It’s absolutely true that, historically speaking, art has frequently been used to distract from or decorate bad decisions (or both). I think this program has already shown the abundant pathways by which art can move collective goals and necessary change forward. I’m excited, honored, and humbled to join the lineage of people doing this work, expanding conceptions and outcomes for what art is and can do. Honestly, I don’t think the most important question for a program like this is how to integrate art into the functions of government: I think the question is how the associative and inventive thinking characteristic of artistic and creative production, in collaboration with systems analysis and equitable decision-making, can be used to move us forward collectively. 

Tell us about your connection to Minnesota. Which aspects of transportation in Minnesota do you feel familiar with, and what do you hope to learn more about during the residency?

I have lived much of my life in Minneapolis (plus Bloomington during my middle and highschool years and Moorhead for my first few years of college). I biked, bussed, and walked in the Twin Cities for ten years as a young adult before buying a used car, so historically, I’ve had a flexible and exploratory approach to transportation. But I question my own increasing reliance on my car (exacerbated when living in Los Angeles), and want to research and engage questions around who uses what forms of transportation, when, and why with all sorts of people in the next year, including those living in suburban, exurban and rural parts of Minnesota. I’d love to figure out how our routine choices – motivated by comfort or necessity or both – can work better for us, individually and collectively, and how expanded options for safe, enjoyable mobility can produce more healthful, equitable outcomes for everybody. How do we make public transportation and even walking safer and more relevant as customary modes of transportation again? The shake-up of our routines during a multi-year pandemic might help us find new answers to this question. Investigating how our individual choices hinge on systemic constraints will involve gleaning insights from individuals both inside and outside the usual decision-making circles, and I look forward to diving in and learning how to do this kind of work with others as effectively as possible.

Sarah Petersen (she or they) is an artist, educator, and organizer whose professional life bridges the worlds of art and sustainability. Her interdisciplinary practice integrates research in social issues and inequities into installation, performance, text-based and interactive projects, making space for and legitimizing underrecognized lived experiences, histories, and potentials. As an artist, she has exhibited her work in solo, group and collaborative contexts nationally and internationally; worked as an arts educator at numerous institutions; and produced arts programs and exhibitions for a variety of collectives and institutions. Simultaneously, she has worked in sustainability-related roles within and outside of institutional settings, producing multimedia environmental education programs, launching sustainability interventions in higher education institutions, teaching in interdisciplinary environmental studies programs, and advocating and organizing for climate change mitigation as an activist. She is a strong proponent of experiential education and experiential art that can change us, our stories, our conditions, and our futures.

Creative Placemaking DOT Innovation